Public Attorney's Office

Why PAO opposes ‘conflict of interest’ provision in new lawyers’ code of conduct

Jairo Bolledo

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Why PAO opposes ‘conflict of interest’ provision in new lawyers’ code of conduct

LADY JUSTICE. Under the Philippine Constitution, all persons in the country are entitled to due process and to representation by a lawyer.


The Public Attorney's Office tells the High Court: 'Ultimately, allowing PAO lawyers to go against each other creates the impression that the justice system in the Philippines is a sham'

MANILA, Philippines – The Supreme Court (SC) just recently launched the Code of Professional Responsibility and Accountability (CPRA) for lawyers, but a specific section in the code already got the disapproval of the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO).

The new code of conduct, approved on April 12, replaced the 34-year-old code for lawyers and now guides the conduct of legal professionals. The creation of the new code was spearheaded by the SC’s subcommittee for the revision of the Code of Professional Responsibility chaired by Associate Justice Amy Lazaro-Javier, and vice chaired by associate justices Samuel Gaerlan and Maria Filomena Singh.

In a letter dated April 20, but publicized only on Friday, April 28, the PAO sent a letter to Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo – raising concerns over section 22, Canon III of the CPRA. The provision in question states:

“Public Attorney’s Office; conflict of interest. – The Public Attorney’s Office is the primary legal aid service of the government. In the pursuit of its mandate under its charter, the Public Attorney’s Office shall ensure ready access to its services by the marginalized sectors of society in a manner that takes into consideration the avoidance of potential conflict of interest situations which will leave these marginalized parties unassisted by counsel.”

The section added: “A conflict of interest of any of the lawyers of the Public Attorney’s Office incident to services rendered for the Office shall be imputed only to the said lawyer and the lawyer’s direct supervisor. Such conflict of interest shall not disqualify the rest of the lawyers from the Public Attorney’s Office from representing the affected client, upon full disclosure to the latter and written informed consent.”

According to the PAO, the new provision allows two PAO lawyers to represent opposing parties in court cases.

Why PAO opposes ‘conflict of interest’ provision in new lawyers’ code of conduct

“Ultimately, allowing PAO lawyers to go against each other creates the impression that the justice system in the Philippines is a sham. It is detrimental to public service because crucial to keeping the people’s trust in our justice system is prevention not only of actual commission, but any appearance of impropriety,” the PAO said in its letter to the High Tribunal.

The PAO also noted that it also “puts at risk the life and limb of the handling public attorneys” because clients could suspect that their counsels “double-crossed them.” The office added it will also disrupt public service because a counsel from one district would have to handle a case in other districts as well.

PAO’s reasons

In its 22-page communication to the High Court, the PAO cited reasons how the specific section would affect its counsels’ job.

  • Clients’ objection. According to the PAO, their clients would “never agree” that their adversaries or opponents in the case be represented by public counsels. The office added that most of their clients are always in “a state of helplessness, hopelessness, and desperation,” so the alleged conflict of interest in the representation might add to their insecurities.
  • Death. The PAO also claimed that conflict of interest in the legal representation may cause death, citing the killings of former public lawyers who were killed in Central Visayas and in Quezon Province.
  • Room for abuse. The new section might provide room for abuse because the adversaries of the marginalized and the oppressed can now be represented by public counsels, the PAO said.
Violations against constitution?

The PAO, in its letter, also raised other arguments, including alleged violation of the 1987 Constitution, and the separation of powers among government branches.

  • Written informed consent on conflict of interest not necessary. The PAO said the section might a cause a client to think that he/she is being blindsided.
  • No clear distinction with indigent, paying clients. The office of public counsels said that because of the new code, there would be no clear distinction between the indigent and paying clients. The PAO said the new code states a clear conflict of interest rule for private firms, while there is none for the public counsels.
  • PAO is different from other offices. PAO lawyers are different from lawyers in the government, the office claimed. It said counsels from other government offices represent the interest of the “people of the Philippines,” and not litigants’ interests. Other offices are not also expected to maintain a fiduciary relationship with its clients, unlike the PAO.
  • Against organizational set-up. According to the PAO, two public lawyers who represent two conflicting clients might be against the organization’s supposed set-up. The conflict might violate the PAO law, enacted by the legislative department, the PAO added.
  • PAO chief has authority. In its letter, the PAO said the Chief Public Attorney has the power to determine who qualifies for services under the PAO.

Aside from a long explanation, the PAO also provided possible consequences that might be “antithetical to adequate legal assistance.”

  • Existing clients “might be blindsided by their adversaries” if their legal opponent can seek PAO assistance without a consent from the existing clients.
  • It would be “costly and highly inconvenient” for indigent clients to seek assistance from various PAO district offices.
  • PAO counsels who would be required to appear in various courts “would have to compromise their diligence, competence, and efficiency in handling cases.”
  • Public lawyers who are allowed to appear in multiple courts might practice moonlighting – or having a second job or commitment aside from the main employment.
  • PAO lawyers may not seek help from other districts, “which could otherwise alleviate PAO clients’ burdens.”
  • Clients of PAO “will always entertain the suspicion” that their lawyers are disloyal to them or collude with the opposing PAO lawyer.

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Jairo Bolledo

Jairo Bolledo is a multimedia reporter at Rappler covering justice, police, and crime.